35% fall in visitors at the NPG

March 5 2018

Image of 35% fall in visitors at the NPG

Picture: NPG

In The Art Newspaper, Martin Bailey looks at the precipitous fall in visitor numbers at both the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery in London. The latter has really suffered:

The National Gallery had 6.3 million visitors in 2016, but this fell to 5.2 million last year, a drop of 17%. The NPG did much worse, with numbers decreasing from 1.9 million to 1.3 million—a fall of 35%. The data for May to December 2017, as reported in the Times newspaper, presented an even more dismal picture, with a decline for the NPG of 42%.

What is the problem here? It would seem, if both the NG and NPG are suffering, that there may be an issue with the location. Not with where they are sited, but with the chaotic mess of Trafalgar Square, with its aggressive Yoda buskers, and the like. The effect of these is to make the National Gallery, with its already somewhat imposing edifice, a less friendly place to enter. The NPG should suffer less from this effect, since its entrance is away from the noise of the Square, but it's clearly having an impact.

That said, I'm afraid the problem at the National Portrait Gallery goes deeper than its entrance. Now, portraiture can be a hard sell - I know this from having spent over a decade actually selling portraits, in my former life as a dealer. Portraits are often seen as arts' poor relation, less noble than landscapes, religous art, or history paintings. The NPG always used to be quietly mindful of this, and counteracted it by playing to portraiture's strengths - its ability, usually through sitters, to be a vehicle for telling great biographical stories. 

For some, however, this kind of individual-focused approach to art, which in the context of a national portrait gallery is also necessarily in danger of being nationalistic, is off-putting. And in its current exhibition programme, and indeed general day-to-day tenor, I get the feeling that the NPG is afraid of its own shadow. If the NPG wants to get people to come back and visit, it needs to celebrate its own collection again, and be proud of what it stands for. Trying to be an extension of Tate Modern won't work.

PS - Of course, all of this comes on top of the bizarre decision to close for a day.

PPS - I say all this with great regret, for the NPG is my favourite gallery - it's more or less responsible for much of my career.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.